US researchers have identified a protein which they believe could be targeted to help prevent diabetes-related heart disease in the future.
The University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine says the answer lies with a specific protein called IRS-1, which is needed for the smooth muscle cells of our veins and arteries.
These cells contract whenever the heart beats, which pushes blood to other organs around the body. However, their function is greatly affected when IRS-1 is reduced.
A decrease in the protein changes the state of the cells, which can lead to a condition called atherosclerosis, meaning there is a build-up of plaque in the heart’s arteries.
If this occurs, the person is at greater risk of suffering from a heart attack, stroke or some other form of heart disease.
Senior author, Dr David Clemmons, from the UNC School of Medicine, said: “When diabetes is poorly managed, your blood sugar goes up and the amount of this protein goes down, so the cells become subject to abnormal proliferation.
“We need to conduct more studies, but we think this cell pathway may have significant implications for how high blood glucose leads to atherosclerosis in humans.”
It is thought the findings, which have been published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, could help find new drugs to prevent heart disease in people with diabetes. Those with diabetes are twice as likely to develop heart disease compared those who do not have diabetes.
Previous research has shown there is a link between high blood sugar levels in people with diabetes and a reduction in IRS-1, but this is the first time the decrease of the protein has been associated with heart disease.
Dr Clemmons said: “The study suggests that you can’t just inhibit the abnormal signaling, which we’ve already figured out how to do.
“Our work suggests you probably have to restore the normal signaling pathway, at least to some extent, in order to completely restore the cells to normal cell health, differentiatio, and functioning.”
Further work is to be carried out on IRS-1, as Dr Clemmons thinks the protein might also lead to more answers about other diabetes complications, such as eye and kidney disease.

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